Habib Koite and Bamada at Jazz Alley in Seattle, by UJ Sommer
I had not heard of Mali's Habib Koite but work had been plentiful and I was feeling flush when my friend Sarah asked me if I'd be interested in tagging along for a show at Seattle's Jazz Alley. "What the hell," I said, "plus, it's been ages since I've been for anything but Hawaiian music live. Yes." We arrived early, ate an expensive but rather delicious dinner, and then, went on to be totally wowed by what happened next.
Six guys—or maybe it was 60, given the complicated rhythms that came from the stage—proceeded to make music that made me break out in goose bumps for about two hours. There was the hollow sound of a wooden xylophone; a persistent bass line that wandered in and out the room, sneaking into my shoes and making them move; there was percussion, so much complicated percussion with so many sounds; and there were strings that I didn't understand but I knew the sound, I knew that this was what an African guitar sounds like, this is what, well, what is that thing anyway? But this, this is what it sounds like.
I found myself looking at photos of Mali a few days later, wondering if that sound is what Habib Koite's home country sounds like, if you are driving across Mali in a battered Land Rover with the windows rolled down and the radio on, does this sound come in on the dust or does it leak out of cafes as you roll past or is it somehow tied into the wind when it blows through the scrubby dry trees?
I began to wonder about music and how it sounds like a place, how you can walk down Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki and hear slack key guitar spilling over the balconies of the second story hotel bars and how the radio blasts Jawaiian when you're on the Nimitz. I thought about how in Austria we could hear the horns across the valley on spring days, how polka rhythms were mixed in with the sound of cowbells. I remembered hitchhiking in Greece and it seemed as though every truck driver who picked us up had the bouzouki music on at a deafening blast. In Cambodia it was hard to avoid the sad minor rhythms of the street musicians—often they were land mine victims, a prosthetic leg standing quietly next to a broad faced man with a drum…
I don't, as a practice, make an effort to go hear live local music nearly often enough. I don't like crowds, it's always too damn loud and you can't really hear the music, I'm old, go ahead and tell me so.
That's a shame; I should make a greater effort. Habib Koite doesn't speak great English, but he talked a little bit about the pleasure of sitting in the shade, and then laughed out loud because "ah ha, you have enough shade here in Seattle…" I was sorry, in that moment, that I have not made music a more important part of my travels.
Hearing the sound of that music and his laughter about the shade and then later, seeing those pictures of Mali, his home country, made me feel the place somewhere else than just my eyes: it was in my feet, Mali got into my head through my ears and my skin for that short time and stayed long enough to stick me with yet another irrational desire to pack my bags and wing off to Bamako, a place I know absolutely nothing about.
A very long time ago I went to a fado club in Lisbon. I can still picture the singer, her dyed jet black hair, her white dress, theatrical makeup that did not hide her age. I can also still hear her voice, well, not her true voice, it's actually the voice of the remarkable Cesario Evora, may she be singing with angels now. But I know that sound, that sad music, the words that I don't understand making me feel homesick for a place that I don't live, and haven't left. In that club I am devastated about leaving Portugal and I have only just arrived. I'm also transported, at the sound of a single sitar, to my hotel room in an Indian hill station town, the name is long forgotten, but I can see the low rain clouds as I lie in bed and I can hear the music coming from down the hall. It is a memory made sharper by sound.
I play the ukulele and I'm lucky, from time to time, to be invited to play with others who are much better than I am. At a recent practice session, I was absolutely transported to Hawaii. It was the completeness of the sound: in that moment I could hear the surf in the background, feel the day's heat leaking back out of the hot sidewalks. I could close my eyes and believe that when I opened them again, it would be dark. I would smell salt and tanning oil, and I would be in Waikiki.
I know so little of music and my skills are mediocre, I'm not a music aficionado. But sound, I recognize sound and when it comes as music, a pattern that I can order my memories against, it pulls everything back into sharp focus. My recollections are not just an image of a faraway place, but they're full, three dimensional experiences that are as real today as they were when they happened the first time.
Pam Mandel is a freelance writer and photographer from Seattle, Washington. Her work has appeared in a variety of print, radio, and web publications. She's contributed to two guidebooks, one on British Columbia and one on Hawaii. She plays the ukulele, loves to eat dessert, and speaks German with a Styrian accent. Pam is the editor for Avid Blog and keeps a personal blog at Nerd's Eye View.
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